Did you know that while you’re sitting in your Friday night lecture, texting your friends to make plans for the weekend, the bacteria around and inside of you are doing pretty much the exact same thing? It turns out that humans aren’t the only ones who use convenient, electric messages to get together. Dr. Gürol Süel and his team at UC San Diego have demonstrated that bacteria are more similar to us than we once thought. Süel’s team recently discovered that bacteria, specifically those who employ the use of biofilms, which are groups of bacterial cells adhered to one another, use electric signaling to communicate, and even ‘advertise’ their social community to recruit other bacteria. Analogous to how a club distributes flyers to passersby on Library Walk, electric signals attempt to convince other species of bacteria to become a part of the biofilm. These bacteria, previously thought to be simple and limited in function as a result of their single-celled nature, have demonstrated incredibly complex social interactions and community structures. Not only does this deepen our understanding and respect for the microorganisms around us, but it also has immense potential in medical and biotechnology fields; intercepting the microbial text message could lead to the cure to hundreds of bacterial diseases.
Bacterial communities commonly exist as of biofilms, such as the plaque that grows on your teeth or the slime you can find in a clogged sink. They can also be found throughout the body, most notably in the multi-species microbiome of the human gut. Prior to Dr. Süel and his team’s findings, it was thought that these biofilms were just simple aggregations of several kinds of bacteria. Dr. Süel’s work has also shown that the individual bacteria of a microbiome are able to communicate with one another through ion channel electrical signaling. This is extraordinarily similar to how neurons communicate with one another in the human brain. They can resolve conflicts, cooperate, and exhibit altruistic behavior, all through communicating via electric signals. Essentially, these microbiomes are acting remarkably similarly to human society. The inter-community electric signaling of biofilms is an colossal enough feat for a unicellular organism to accomplish, but bacteria have managed to take it one step further, buy using; they can also use their electronic signaling abilities to attempt to control the actions of other species.
Through long-range electric signaling, a biofilm can alter the behavior of a cell outside of its community, ‘convincing’ it to join the biofilm. It’s mind control on a microscopic level. The electric signals sent out by the biofilm have a wide range of control over the actions of the receiving bacteria, over a wide range of species. The beauty of the process is its generality; it can apply to almost any bacteria. The reason this discovery is groundbreaking is because previously, the formation of biofilms was a mystery, yet they are so prevalent in biology. Understanding the origins of these communities can help us understand their function and applications as well. Beyond this, just the fact that bacteria can meet and sometimes even rival the communication abilities of the human race is an astounding biological surprise.
So why is this interspecies electrical communication between biofilms and independent bacteria important to us? Bacteria is the source of many infections, and biofilms are major functioning components in the human body. So what if we could control what these communities were doing? If we could manipulate electrical signaling and tell the human gut microbiome to perform certain processes, or tell Staphylococcus infection-causing bacteria to self destruct, we could cure diseases, improve healing times, and potentially save lives. Microbial electrical signaling is a way in which we could have trillions of bacteria suddenly working for us. It’s entirely possible that one day, we could get people out of their hospital beds faster just by sending a “text message” to the microbial communities in their bodies.